Quick Shifts: ‘The best player in the world by far’

Harnarayan Singh talks to Wild forward Eric Staal about his spectacular season so far in Minnesota and how Coach Bruce Boudreau has had a big hand in that.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.

1. Only one active player was made available onstage at a podium, instead of scrumming at a pod, during All-Star Weekend’s Media Day — and it was not Sidney Crosby.

A move like that could be seen as the league taking a baby step to position Connor McDavid as its new face.

McDavid was asked if he feels there’s a baton exchange underway. He bristled at the question.

“I definitely don’t think about that. It’s pretty clear Crosby is the best player in the world and he’s here to stay for a long time. It’s definitely not a passing of the torch or anything like that,” McDavid asserted.

“He’s the best player in the world by far. Just what he does, it’s unbelievable. He finds a way to produce every night. Score goals, create plays. Even when he’s not getting points, he’s producing offence [because] his defensive game is really good as well. He’s an all-around player and definitely the best player in the world.”

Though the world’s best player got the same media arrangements as, say, Frans Nielsen, the Crosby love overflowed. Wayne Gretzky, Michel Therrien and Peter Forsberg all spoke glowingly of Sid raising his game.

“He saved our franchise,” Penguins co-owner and former landlord Mario Lemieux reminded folks. “We were struggling. We had to rebuild at some point, and winning the lottery changed the outlook of our franchise and really saved the franchise.”

Like anyone his age, McDavid grew up in awe of Crosby and savoured the chance to spend downtime with him in L.A. No wonder he’s so eager to represent Canada at the Pyeongchang Olympics next winter.

I asked Forsberg if he sees his game in any modern player.

“I wish I could say McDavid,” Forsberg said. “He’s better at everything than I was. He skates faster, he sees the game. I really enjoy seeing him play. He’s everywhere on the ice. He’s making his team win.

“If I could start over, I would like to be like him.”

The constant slathering of praise understandably makes the kid uncomfortable, especially when he’s sitting by himself on stage. (How do you properly respond to this stuff?) But that doesn’t mean he’s not aware of his own awesomeness. McDavid said he’s noticed that he’s getting more attention on the ice, too.

“I notice it more in the neutral zone. I don’t get a lot of time with the puck in the neutral zone to come through with a lot of speed. That’s definitely an area I need to figure out: how to get open, find different ways down the middle. Overall, figure it out and find a way to contribute that way,” he explained.

“It’s almost a compliment if you’re getting attention like that. That’s how I try to look at it as much as it sucks.”

2. Saturday marks Slim-fit Pants Day in the National Hockey League, and the goaltenders have been giving them mixed reviews.

Happy-go-lucky Vezina candidate Sergei Bobrovsky says he feels completely comfortable in his new trousers and just as protected as he did in his baggier getup. In fact, he made the switch way back at the beginning of December, months ahead of the deadline.

“Why not?” Bobrovsky smiles. “The earlier you get used to them, the earlier you’ll be there.”

Arizona’s Mike Smith thinks it’s “ridiculous” to make a significant equipment switch mid-season, and Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk hints he’s not a big fan, either.

“It just depends what you were wearing before. I didn’t notice a difference in practice,” says Washington’s Braden Holtby. “I don’t know if it’ll have an effect.”

If the streamlined pants are ruffling feathers, just wait till the NHL implements restrictions on the chest protector.

Holtby says you can walk into 30 different dressing rooms and see 30 completely different chest protectors. They’re like giant, clunky, protective snowflakes tailormade to fit each goalie’s frame and movements.

“Pants are pants,” Holtby says. “The chest protector will be tougher because there’s more moving parts in it. I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a way to make a standardized one as opposed to make a size and if you don’t fit it, you’ve got to change yourself.”

3. Cool monthly NHL award: Mitchell Marner becoming the third different Maple Leaf to capture Rookie of the Month honours (Auston Matthews, William Nylander). Your move, Connor Brown.

Not-so-cool monthly NHL award: Brad Marchand named Second Star of January, a month in which he slewfooted not one but two respected defencemen.

The notorious plays-with-an-edge winger got fined $10,000 for his trip on Niklas Kronwall but got off for sweeping Anton Stralman’s leg:

“I really didn’t even know he was there until we collided, so it was just kind of a hockey play,” Marchand told reporters. Great. To him, it’s “a hockey play” now.

Marchand is on a scoring tear, no doubt. Helluva player. Sidney Crosby’s face lit up to reunite with him at all-star, and division rivals P.K. Subban and Matthews raved about him. But honouring the guy just days after you fine him for something many believe is dirty work is not a good look.

4. Marchand says he hasn’t been listening to the trade rumours surrounding his Bruins, a playoff bubble team for the third straight season.

So he was told that GM Don Sweeney has been connected to Colorado in kicking tires on Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene.

“Jeez, are they bumping up the cap for us?” Marchand laughed. “Everyone’s a player away from being in contention. Everyone needs a top-six forward and a top-two or-three defenceman. That’s the way it is. They’re so hard to come by. Prices are extremely high. Now with the cap system, everyone knows what everybody needs. You need to take advantage of that.”

5. Don’t look now but the New York Islanders — mired in the Eastern Conference basement when coach Jack Capuano was fired — now have better than a 45 per cent chance of rallying to make the playoffs.

Hard to tell if it’s the roster responding to a cutthroat wake-up call or something specific interim boss Doug Weight is doing.

“I know how hard he worked, how committed he was, how much he cared about our team,” says captain John Tavares, confirming GM Garth Snow gave him a 20-minute heads-up before the coach’s dismissal went public. “When it happened, I took it pretty hard for sure.”

The Isles have not lost in regulation (5-0-1) since Weight took the reins. (New York went 17-17-8 in 42 games under Capuano.) The feeling is the Islanders would like to start fresh with a brand-new coach next season, but what if the team continues to respond to Weight and reaches the post-season in the NHL’s toughest division? Can they really cut him?

“There’s a comfort level there, instead of someone else coming in. You don’t know how [a coach from the outside] is, how he does certain things,” says Tavares, noting a sense of new life in the room. “We all had a pretty good idea of Dougie’s personality and how he does things.”

6. Chris Pronger’s role model switched from sniper Mike Bossy (fond memories of the ’81 Canada Cup) to well-rounded defencemen Ray Bourque and Al MacInnis when he was a kid. He got to share a stage with all of them at the NHL 100. We asked him which active blueliner impresses him the most.

“I like the 200-foot guys,” Pronger said. “The Duncan Keiths, the Drew Doughtys, the guys who don’t sacrifice defence to play offence. The way they manage the game, the way they move the puck. Not a lot of wasted energy. Not a lot of wasted skating. They can pick up the tempo or slow the game to a pace they want. Those are guys who are pretty special.”

7. Asked Swedish legend Peter Forsberg, assistant GM of Modo, to give an assessment of Maple Leafs rookie William Nylander’s game.

“Well, he’s got a few years to learn. I saw him in Modo a lot,” Forsberg said.

“He’s kind of a sneaky player. He’s not big, but he finds space and gets away from hits. He sees the game very well. I think it’s good for him to play in Toronto because they got a lot of young guys coming up and they’ll mature together. Give him a few years. He’s got great hands.”

Team Sweden. #nhlallstar

A photo posted by luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) on

8. Before going on to win MVP, Wayne Simmonds was talking to Willie O’Ree in the NHL All-Star Game’s hotel lobby when Larry Robinson just casually entered their conversation. Blew Simmonds away.

I’ve harped this before (and probably will again): I believe the Hockey Hall of Fame should induct the NHL’s first black player. I told Simmonds that O’Ree wasn’t in the Hall.

“That’s surprising. He should be, 100 per cent,” Simmonds said.

“For someone like me, Willie O’Ree was the first hockey player I ever knew. Being a person of colour, Willie O’Ree was a big name in my household. That was the first person my mother and father introduced me to. It’s important to know your roots, where you came from, people who gave you an opportunity to play this game. He’s definitely the person who most inspired me to play this game.”

9. Tough go for Johnny Gaudreau this season. Nice to see him with three points in the past two games. He says the swelling on his broken hand continues to go down.

“Every once in a while I’ll feel a little bit of pain. That’s probably from coming back a little early, but it’s feeling better every day,” says the Flames star.

Gaudreau keeps reiterating that he doesn’t want to complain about the hacking he’s received, but it’s got to eat at him.

“You can’t let it get to you. Frustration piles up, piles up, then next thing you know you’re taking a boneheaded penalty and are in the box for two minutes,” Gaudreau says. He does appear open to the idea of GM Brad Treliving acquiring some protection.

“Brad’s obviously looking into a lot of things. I don’t think that’s my call to make. The game’s changing toward speed and skill. Sometimes it’s smarter to have that out there, and sometimes it’s smarter to have toughness out there. I just play my style of game.”

10. Much chatter about where (Las Vegas, hopefully) and when (2019, hopefully) the NHL’s next All-Star Game will take place, but how and why are also common questions.

The on-ice product in L.A. was ratcheted down a notch from the jolt of the first 3-on-3 tournament in Nashville. Shea Weber was asked if raising the stakes — à la Major League Baseball awarding home field for the World Series — could prod the stars to try harder.

“Baseball, guys aren’t running each other and hurting each other. It’s pitcher versus batter,” Weber said.

Hard truth: This is as competitive as the NHL All-Star Game is gonna get. Lower your expectations. Enjoy it for what it is: a celebration of the game, mostly for kids. Stop hoping for real hockey.

“Same with football. You try to make the Pro Bowl as realistic but you can’t. Their jobs are basically to take each other out. It’s hard. You want something fast, competitive and good to watch, but you don’t want to see anyone get hurt either. There’s 30, 40 games left. These are top players on their teams. If someone on your team gets hurt, you’re not going to be happy.”

11. Overshadowed by Justin Bieber in the celebrity game in Los Angeles, Cuba Gooding Jr. spoke glowingly about Connor McDavid, who joined the shinny game at the last minute. The willingness to spontaneously join struck a chord with the actor.

“He really seems to have that age-old quality about him,” Gooding Jr. said. “That’s what attracts me about athletes in the NHL — they’re just such humble people. You have knuckleheads in every sport, but the majority of athletes in the NHL carry themselves with such class and dignity.”

The Boyz N the Hood star has played in a bunch of celebrity shinny games. Best tactical advice for these games?

“Go to the net,” he says. Joe Sakic told him that. “I did and I scored three goals that day.”

12. P.K. Subban is at his most effervescent when the topic drifts from nuts-and-bolts hockey talk and dives into other areas.

As one Montreal reporter smartly remarked, he’s becoming increasingly deft at talking a lot without saying anything. All-Star weekend brought out full spotlight Subban.

On the greatest hockey film of all time:Youngblood is really good, but you gotta go with Mighty Ducks. As a kid growing up, that was the fun in the game: going out playing shinny and practising the Flying V. It’ll never work in a game, but you’re living in a fantasy world. That’s when the game was the most fun.”

It was brought to Subban’s attention that his former club, the Montreal Canadiens, actually tried to execute the Flying V on a recent power play.

“No way!” he exclaimed. “Did it work?”

On the look Carey Price’s baby girl, Liv, gave Subban upon meeting him for the first time last weekend: “I don’t know this guy, but I feel like I have to be nice to him.” (Sidebar: Carey Price was asked if he’s ready for a second child.

On Montreal poutine versus Nashville barbecue: “Nobody’s saying poutine isn’t good. It’s great in Montreal. But the barbecue would be healthier for you. Depends what you want: Is it a cheat day or are you looking for the healthiest meal? It depends on your metabolism. Some guys can eat poutine and burn it up real quick. If you’re like me… I eat poutine and I gotta get a new bra the next day. I’m a poutine fan. I like it. Just all in moderation.”

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